CIO review foreshadows widespread fed evaluations

In what could be a yardstick for the evaluation of new federal chief information officers the General Accounting Office has looked at the CIO experience within NASA and found it wanting. The authority bestowed on the space agency's CIO is not enough to bring about the level of improvements envisioned by the Information Technology Management Reform Act (ITMRA) according to a recent GAO report and that has major implications as agencies throughout the government continue to put CIO organizations in place.

NASA was one of the first agencies to install a CIO and with a broader examination of federal CIOs in mind GAO audited the NASA organization to examine exactly what authority and accountability had been furnished to that agency's CIO.

"I consider the implementation of ITMRA to be critical " said Jack Brock GAO's director for information resources management/resources community and economic development. "We are not going to do a formal assessment. I just want to have a conversation" with agencies about their intended CIO structures. "NASA is one of the first examples " Brock said "and there are implications here for our work at other agencies."

Will It Work?

At issue is whether NASA's decentralized structure is conducive to an effective CIO operation. The agency delegates many of its IRM purchases and functions to its space centers and it is this decentralization - similar in many ways to the bureau system employed by other federal agencies - that has crippled the potential for the new position GAO said.

This only seems to confirm long-standing speculation that CIOs may not be powerful enough to bring about the changes that have been mandated by ITMRA.

"I don't think the report says as much about NASA as it does about the entire state of play of information integration in the entire federal government " said Larry Koskinen vice president for project development at the Council for Excellence in Government.

Many observers in and out of government have stressed the importance of having a CIO with enough authority to link information technology programs to an agency's mission and financial planning process."In chartering its CIO NASA set specific limits on the CIO's authority " according to the GAO report. For example although the CIO can set agencywide policy and standards he must rely on the cooperation of the program offices and field centers to carry out directives.

"NASA preferred that its program offices and field centers continue to independently manage their information technology budgets and implement the systems needed to support their programs " according to the report.

Not a Universal Change

Although the agency's CIO shop is in flux this basic structuring of IRM resources will not change said Don Andreoetta NASA's assistant CIO for operations.

"Our model of the CIO office in the agency is evolving " he said. "There are some things that [NASA CIO] Ron West has done of late that have strengthened the role of the CIO and the effectiveness of the operating model.

"But we are not going to do things like take control of budgets " he said. "We are not interested in doing that and we don't think we need to."

Andreoetta said NASA is beefing up investment planning and review processes which "will give quite a bit more of the insight and corporate focus this office needs to be an effective player in the agency."

But he added "we are not going to change the agency culture. We think that has been a strength and has been successful over the years. We take issue with GAO on that continually."

Even if an agency such as NASA does not consolidate IRM budgeting authority under the central CIO office the office must have definitive power or it will be "nothing more than simply a bureaucratic structure that ultimately may not make a difference " said John de Ferrari GAO's assistant director for the Accounting and Information Management Division.

"You have to be skeptical of the agencywide efficiencies" that NASA can achieve under the current arrangement with its centers de Ferrari said.

"I don't think they have that as a real goal. I think the centers really are in charge of major things and I think they like it that way " de Ferrari added.

"A CIO doesn't necessarily have to control the money below " said Renato DiPentima CIO of SRA Corp. and chairman of the Industry Advisory Council which recently completed a comprehensive analysis of what makes an effective CIO operation. "But CIOs must have oversight and approval of the budgets."

There is also a level of standardization of IRM investments that Congress in passing ITMRA and GAO in examining the implementation will be looking for.

Model Variance

"There is no one CIO model being suggested and put in place in all agencies " said David McClure GAO's assistant director for strategic information management who has worked on the CIO issue for many years. "One of the things that will be looked at regardless of where the decisions are made is whether there are some standard practices being used to make decisions " he said.

Brock said that for GAO ITMRA's CIO language imposes "criteria" for gauging the effectiveness of agency IRM operations.

"Before we could assert a criteria based on good management practices now we have a criteria that has been applied by law " he said.

From his vantage point in one of the first agencies to create a CIO office NASA's Andreoetta predicts a tough road ahead for many agencies.

"There are certainly agencies in town that are structured similarly to NASA in terms of bureaus and such " Andreoetta said. "Finding a commonality among broad constituents is tough. We are struggling with how to do that."

Because of the timing with the recent focus on CIOs governmentwide NASA's early foray into the arena has put it in the spotlight.

"I know they are taking this very seriously " DiPentima said. "There is great interest for them to step out and do the right thing [but] pioneers usually do wind up with arrows in their backs."

GAO's review of NASA's CIO program focused on: * CIO initiatives to improve information resources management.* Opportunities for NASA to strengthen the CIO position and improve its IRMprogram.

GAO found that:* The NASA CIO has taken some action to address long-standing IRM problems.* But NASA has also been reluctant to limit the authority of field centers andprogram offices in IT decisions.* Despite this the NASA CIO is instituting software and hardware standards to achieve interoperability among systems plus other actions.* Strengthening the CIO position would enable NASA to achieve efficiencies and savings among mission-related systems. * Agencywide investments in mission-related systems and related contractor services make up as much as 91 percent of NASA's annual IRM budget. * Funding for IT investment cannot be accurately consolidated given the non-standard funding categories that various program offices use.* Instituting an effective IT resource tracking system is essential to ensure the effectiveness of IT investments.

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